Take it from me, becoming a firefighter is an incredibly rewarding thing career path. It gives your life a sense of purpose and the satisfaction of really helping other people. You get to save lives, something most people simply will never get the chance to do in their careers. But you may be wondering if you want to join me and the thousands of men and women in the fire service, do you need a college degree?
A college degree is not required for most firefighter jobs. However, a degree can be helpful to improve your chances of getting hired into the competitive field of firefighting.
You can certainly become a firefighter without going to college, but you may want to consider pursuing a higher education. Let’s take a closer look at what you need to be a firefighter and how you might best pursue your career ambitions.
Table of Contents
- Do You Need A Degree To Be A Firefighter?
- How Competitive Is Becoming A Firefighter?
- What Disqualifies You From Being A Firefighter?
Do You Need A Degree To Be A Firefighter?
The absolute educational minimum to become a firefighter is to have obtained your high school diploma or your GED.
However, the fire service isn’t really about doing “the absolute minimum” and the truth is that for every spot in the service, there’s a lot of people competing for it.
You will find that having some form of EMT or Paramedic certification is required by many parts of the fire service as an additional requirement and that holding a degree is also seen as very beneficial. (Even if it is not required to apply.)
It is also worth noting that while most fire service jobs don’t demand a degree at the entry-level to the service, in the longer-term many of the more specialist and administration (chief level) roles do.
So, if you don’t have a degree when you join the fire service, to get promoted, you may need to go and get one.
Should I Go To College If I Want To Be A Firefighter?
This is a tricky question.
One thing they don’t give us at fire school is a crystal ball.
However, it’s fair to say that if current trends continue, then if you want to join the fire service, you probably should get a college degree before you do.
That’s because a degree enables you to do more than some pen and paper learning, but it also allows you to get actively involved in learning how to manage people, how to give presentations and interact with the public and develop a strategic and tactical understanding of the service and its methodologies.
A degree, thus, isn’t just a tick box exercise on some faceless bureaucrat’s paperwork, but rather real training for a future in the service and particularly for those with ambitions to help run the service one day.
What Degree Do Most Firefighters Have?
The most common choice of degree for firefighters is fire science.
This is a degree that is tailored to the needs of firefighters, and you will learn:
- Something about the history and theory of fire prevention, fire suppression and fire investigation
- Something about the actual practices (including hands-on training in some cases) of fire prevention, fire suppression and fire investigation in use in the service today
- About emergency service response
- About human resource management and group management
- About fire service leadership
- About resource allocation and strategic and tactical approaches to fire fighting
The good news is that this is a degree linked to real job prospects and the need for firefighters is expected to increase at a rate of roughly 7% per annum and if you were thinking about a job as a fire inspector or investigator the rate of growth there is around 10% per annum!
What Is The Best College For Fire Science?
There are many colleges in the United States that deliver excellent fire science programs and having only attended one, it would be hard to give you a categoric “what’s the best college” list.
In fact, we’re pretty sure that despite the lists out there (all from providers looking to sell you a course), the best college for you to study fire science at will depend on you as much as the college.
To find that college you should:
- Get Googling. You can do a ton of research about college options online. This is easy and free. Why not start today?
- Put together a short list of schools. Decide on your own criteria – it could be anything from “reputation” to “distance from home” to “cost of learning”.
- Rank that short list by priority. Dig down into what really matters to you, is it worth spending an extra $10,000 on tuition to avoid having to move out of home? Does a particular lecturer merit pushing the college up your list? And so on.
- Get moving early. Get you applications in as fast as possible and don’t leave it to the last minute, start getting essays written, letters of recommendation, etc. together the moment that you can.
- Revisit the schools you visited. Yes, you probably looked at schools before you applied but it can help to go back to them afterwards and ask a bunch more questions that have arisen since. If you can’t go back in person, e-mail and get answers that way.
- Be reasonable about costs. The fire service is not the highest paying employer in the world, do you really want to spend $100,000 on a private university when you could spend $10,000 for a public college? Paying back debt forever is not most people’s idea of a good time.
- Try to connect the college to any benefits to your future career. This may not always be easy, but you ought to be able to, at a minimum, see what percentage of their graduates get jobs in the service.
- Connect with the school’s career center. What help can they give you in securing a fire service job?
- How much can you get in financial aid? If you can get a full ride to the college of your dreams that’s awesome. But if not, how much aid can you get and can you avoid getting into debt at all? Life’s easier in the service if you’re not paying off college for the next 20 years.
- Ask your family for input. That doesn’t mean “you have to do what your parents want” but they will have ideas and things they want to say and by listening, you can probably get their support for the years of hard work to come at college.
- Shrug off rejection. Some colleges will say “no”, never mind, move on and find one that works for you anyway. Firefighters need to be resilient, so this is a good place to start.
If you use these tips, it shouldn’t be too hard to determine which college is the right college for your firefighting career.
Note: Really any college that offers a fire science, fire technology, or fire administration degree will work just fine. The fire service isn’t known for showing a preference for one college over another, just that you apply yourself and get the education.
How Competitive Is Becoming A Firefighter?
You might think that the process of becoming a firefighter would be an easy one, after all, it takes a special kind of person to want to risk their lives for the benefit of others, right?
While this is true, it takes an even more special person to actually deliver on that desire, and becoming a firefighter is a heavily competitive process.
In fact, of every 10 people that start out with the desire to join the fire service, 7 of them will flunk out along the way and only 30% of those who apply will eventually get a job as a firefighter!
This is because the process needs to test your physical, mental, and emotional (spiritual) tenacity to ensure that you have what it takes to spend 24 hours or more fighting a fire when your personal relationships are suffering at home, for example.
Why Is It So Hard To Get Hired As A Firefighter?
The biggest barrier to entry to the fire service is simply the number of people who want to join it – there’s a lot of competition for each place.
However, it’s also essential that the service thoroughly tests each applicant to ensure that they are capable of standing up to the rigors of the job.
What Disqualifies You From Being A Firefighter?
There are also certain things that are going to disqualify you from becoming a firefighter full stop and one thing you can be sure of is that getting a fire science degree is not going to help you overcome these barriers.
The things that disqualify you from the service are as follows:
- You can’t pass the physical requirements. This includes the presence of certain medical conditions so if you have heart disease, out of control diabetes or conditions that need steroids or narcotics, the odds are pretty good you won’t be able to serve. It can help to contact your local fire service and find out what their physical requirements are before committing to pursuing a career in firefighting.
- You have previous history of substance abuse. For fairly obvious reasons the fire service cannot let you out on a call if you’re under the influence of illegal substances, you would be putting your life, the public’s lives and your fellow firefighter’s lives at risks. Any previously failed drug tests or criminal convictions are going to see you disqualified from firefighting life. You should also know that many states will not hire smokers either, and any smoking within a year of starting the job can get you fired too.
- You’ve got previous criminal convictions. The position of firefighter is a responsible one. Most criminal convictions will disqualify you from service either permanently or for a long period of time. You can also lose your job as a firefighter if you are convicted of a felony or even a misdemeanor. You can also be rejected if, at any point, it is felt you have admitted to committing a crime but escaped punishment for it.
- You’ve committed certain driving offences. Firefighters need to be able to drive. Those with poor driving records will often have their applications deferred until they can prove they can drive safely. Those who’ve been caught DUI will need to wait for 5 years (as will some other serious offenses). Even driving without insurance can stop you for a year.
- You’re in breach of local regulations. Some fire departments ban tattoos or visible piercings. They may also ban people with histories of problem gambling or debt. You may also be prevented from joining some fire services if you’ve been expelled from any other form of service in the past in a dishonorable fashion.
Please don’t get a fire science degree with the intention of becoming a firefighter, if you know you will be disqualified for the reasons above – it won’t change a thing about your disqualification, but you will spend several years and lots of money trying to gain a qualification that’s not that much use in other professions.